At once accessibly humanist and endearingly nerdy, suffused with a deep love of language and a quiet awe at the possibilities of human collaboration, “The Great Passage” tells a gently absorbing story about a team of editors who spend 15 years writing and compiling a new Japanese dictionary. Previously known for his quirky indie efforts “Sawako Decides” and “Mitsuko Delivers,” director Yuya Ishii takes a considerable step forward in terms of budget and ambition with this simple, sometimes sentimental yet wise and full-bodied comedy-drama, which movingly testifies to the ways in which dedication, focus and an extreme attention to detail can achieve something of lasting value.
Well attended at home, the film stands to court a measure of offshore attention after having been selected as Japan’s official Oscar selection in the foreign-language film category. And while its 133-minute running time could make it something of a tricky arthouse proposition, the length feels entirely appropriate to the vastness and density of its subject. For anyone who ever wondered how a dictionary is written (where to start? Where to end?), “The Great Passage” seeks to illuminate the process, though it never quite demystifies the magical capabilities of words to convey and distill meaning.
It’s 1995 when Tomohiro Matsumoto (Go Kato), head of the dictionary editorial department at a Tokyo publisher, announces that they will begin work on a new 240,000-word tome called “The Great Passage,” so named because it will help the reader navigate “a vast sea of words that extends to infinity.” It’s an imposing yet inherently democratic project, making room for slang words, modern expressions and acronyms, and honoring the everyday relevance of language by engaging with the vernacular of Japanese youth. Unfortunately, with trusty longtime editor Kouhei Araki (Kaoru Kobayashi) retiring to look after his ailing wife, the department must find a suitable replacement before the project can go forward. They find it, unexpectedly, in Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda), a painfully shy and withdrawn employee in the sales department who happens to have a degree in linguistics, which he’ll soon put to excellent use.
Matsumoto’s vision for the new dictionary is predicated on an old-fashioned notion of words as enablers of human connection — a theme that plays out dramatically as Majime, so awkward and withdrawn initially that he has difficulty even forming an audible sentence, gradually emerges from his shell. Drinking and bonding with his rowdy polar-opposite colleague, Masashi Nishioka (a terrific Joe Odagiri), Majime eventually falls head-over-heels for beautiful culinary student Kaguya Hayashi (Aoi Miyazaki), the granddaughter of his ailing landlady. The film’s midsection follows Majime’s charming efforts to woo Kaguya the only way he knows how: through the written word.
Still, most of this leisurely paced story unfolds within the dim, cramped confines of the dictionary office, a wonderland of high-stacked reference tomes and minimal desk space where the editors pore over index cards, proofs and the occasional computer (it’s still 1995, after all). Kensaku Watanabe’s script (adapted from Shiwon Miura’s novel) is unafraid to immerse the viewer in minutiae, at one point pausing so the characters can discuss the varying adhesive qualities of different kinds of paper. Even for non-bibliophiles, it’s improbably fascinating stuff, rooted in a loving and genuinely curious approach to this highly specialized milieu.
“The Great Passage” could just as well refer to the passage of time, as the film soon leaps ahead more than a decade to find Majime and his colleagues still plugging away at their dictionary. The more robust comedy of the first half gives way to more reflective drama in the second as editors come and go, with major life events like marriage, children, aging and death all playing out quietly in the background. Even as he focuses relentlessly on the all-consuming nature of this particular work and the deep friendships built in the process, Ishii achieves a poignant sense of life’s slow but inexorable progression. The steady toll of Majime’s long hours spent working while Kaguya plays the supportive wife (cooking an endless succession of delicious-looking meals that often go untouched) is poignantly acknowledged if never dramatized outright.
The result is a graceful seriocomic study of how the obsessive study of words can both enrich and sometimes limit a person’s life experience, although the director’s tone is largely one of enormous respect for his intelligent, endlessly devoted protagonists. The script doesn’t over-emphasize the considerable changes that have transpired in the publishing industry over the story’s roughly 15-year period, although it’s possible to discern in the elegiac final scenes a sense of longing for a pre-digital era, when language was used with more care and books were held in higher esteem.
Performances are excellent across the board. Matsuda beautifully modulates his character’s long-arc transformation from socially awkward bookworm to respected leader of the enterprise; Odagiri provides non-jarring comic relief while still etching a fully rounded character; and Kato and Kobayashi inhabit their wise-mentor roles with warmth and dignity. Haru Kuroki adds a shot of youthful energy to the proceedings as one of the department’s bright new recruits, her glossy-magazine background making her just the person to update all the dictionary’s fashion-related entries.
Tech package is sturdy. Junichi Fujisawa’s lensing seems to rely largely on natural light, while occasional inserts of nocturnal ocean imagery dovetail beautifully with the film’s title and theme. English-language subtitles at the Vancouver festival screening attended were excellent, a must for a film so heavily invested in the nuances of words.